Rita Moreno has been in the business for seven decades! As you can imagine, she was given all the labels a Hollywood girl can get. And with all that (sometimes unwanted) attention, it meant she had to figure out how to deal with it. “It never occurred to me not to withstand it,” she said. “I figured, and I was right, that that was how Hollywood was run and how it functioned. And I just went with the flow, as they say, not happily.”
The EGOT performer (she has an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) revealed that it was that kind of attention that made her nearly take her life. Rita Moreno has been through it all (70 years will do it), and we’re here to bring light to her long-time story in the making.
Born in 1931, Rita Moreno is now approaching 90 years old. She was the subject of a recent documentary called Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, but there’s a lot the actress left out of her never-ending interviews. The now 89-year-old is still a looker, but back in her heyday, she was a sex object.
“You hate it when they call you a sex object,” she told Yahoo! “And here’s the truth, and this is something I didn’t mention in the film only because I didn’t think about it: I would dress up in a very, very provocative way.” Moreno said she would always wear “tight little dresses with my cute little bum”—but she “somehow never acknowledged” that it “wasn’t helping.”
Moreno doesn’t really care about that these days. Today, she has one thing to say to women: “F*** them! You can dress any damn way you please,” she stated proudly. “You can wear as many hoop earrings and as low-cut a neck as you want.” Yes, the woman is bold, but it took a long time for her to gain such confidence.
In the early days of her career, she wasn’t really treated as a serious actor. In her opinion, many of her early roles were “embarrassing,” and she referred to that time as her “dusky maiden period.” Moreno just kept on hoping that one day she would be cast in something “more meaningful.”
By 1961, after about a decade in the business, West Side Story came knocking on her door. She actually worked hard to get the part. She did a screen test, two in-person auditions—one for the acting part and one for the singing part—and finally had to meet with director Jerry Robbins.
It was Robbins’ idea to bring her in because he had already worked with her on The King and I. She said he warned her: “Everything is really good so far, but now you have to be able to dance.” She told him that she hadn’t danced since she was 16; she was by then in her mid-20s.
Robbins told her to understand that “as much as we would love to have you… if you can’t cut it with the dancing, you don’t play Anita.” And he told her this after an already successful series of auditions. According to Moreno, they were auditioning anybody with brown hair and brown eyes.
So, what she did was both “clever and desperate.” She called a friend of hers named Debra, who had played Anita on the stage. She told Debra that she was “terrified” of her upcoming dance audition. Moreno was a “Spanish dancer” – not a “jazz” dancer, which is what the filmmakers were looking for.
Debra told her desperate friend that she would help her, but she also warned the young hopeful. She told Moreno that she couldn’t teach her the entire dance—there just wasn’t enough time. So, she taught her certain sections of the dance.
When she walked into her audition, her heart was in her throat. The assistant dance director, Howard Jeffries, taught her some steps, and it seemed to go okay. Years later, Moreno learned that Robbins asked Jeffries how it went, and the dance director told him that it was clear she hadn’t danced in a while, but she’s “so vivacious” and “lots of fun.”
The film that earned her the Oscar (the first for any Latina) for Best Supporting Actress is one of the most iconic roles of her entire career. Her character, Anita, became her role model. It was the first time, she recalled, that she played someone who stood up for themselves.
According to Moreno, she had never had an on-screen Latina role model when she was growing up. “There was no such thing then… certainly not for little Puerto Rican girls like me.” But things changed when she and her mother moved to America in 1936 when she was five years old.
They moved to New York from Juncos, Puerto Rico, leaving behind both her father and younger brother Francisco, whom she absolutely loved. Tragically, she never saw him again. It was her first heartbreak.
Moreno said that she never had the courage to ask her mother why she left her own son behind. “As strong as she was, I had a feeling that was her Achilles, and that she couldn’t bear to talk about it.” As an adult, Moreno hired investigators to find her long-lost brother, but unfortunately, nothing came of it.
Her mother was only 17 when she was born, and thus was in her early 20s when the mother-daughter duo came to America during the wave of Puerto Rican migration. Moreno spoke no English (her birth name was Rosa Delores Alverio Marcano, and her nickname as a kid was Rosita).
Moreno ended up taking the last name of her mother’s second husband, Edward Moreno. Growing up, Moreno’s mother Rosa, a seamstress, made all her daughter’s clothes, including her dance costumes. Moreno was only six years old when she made her professional debut.
She did a duet with her Spanish dance instructor on a stage in NYC’s Greenwich Village. She remembers every detail from the ruffled dress to the “jota” (a country dance) to the castanets. Her mother let her wear lipstick for the first time, and she was thrilled.
That was 1937. Fast forward eight decades, and the nearly 90-year-old is still dancing. In the documentary, you can see her kicking up her heels at her own Cuba-themed birthday party.
In her memoir, Moreno recounted how as a young child she danced for American troops who were on their way to fight in World War II. She wrote that it was only later that she realized her dancing was probably the last bit of entertainment some of those soldiers ever saw.
Moreno recalled that there would be a big bell that would ring, signaling that they had to board the ships. “It was very loud, like a school bell, and then the entire room would literally get up and leave.”
The young Moreno would then sit and wait until the next group of soldiers showed up. She was about eight or nine years old, in her Carmen Miranda outfit, singing the song Rum and Coca-Cola. She remembers the audience being very sweet and appreciative.
She also figured that they were very vulnerable since they knew what was coming, “and they were willing to be distracted.” Now, as she recounts the memories, she’s moved because she was so young back then and had no idea the significance of it all.
Moreno spent years working as a contract actor for MGM before landing her breakout role in West Side Story. Playing Anita was important for her because it was the first—and only—part she remembers where she represented Hispanics in a “dignified and positive way.” And to think she almost didn’t take part…
Just before she signed the contract for West Side Story, Moreno remembered a troubling verse in the song America. She was going to have to sing: “Puerto Rico, You ugly island, the island of tropic diseases.” Of course, being from the country, she wasn’t so gung-ho about singing such a derogatory lyric.
“And it suddenly occurred to me, oh my God, I can’t sing that!… I can’t do this to my people,” she recalled thinking at the time. She was very close to turning down the role before Stephen Sondheim (one of the composers) changed the lyric to: “Puerto Rico, my heart’s devotion, let it sink back in the ocean.”
Thanks to Sondheim, she held on to the role that made her a star. After the breakout role and her Oscar win, Moreno expected more opportunities to come her way. But instead she was offered one stereotypical role after another—the gang members and housewives’ type. For Moreno, it was devastating.
After the high of her “magnificent” and “important” role as the powerful Anita, Moreno experienced a new low as she was now being typecast as the “typical” Puerto Rican girl. “It was the heartbreak of my life,” Moreno says. She decided to turn down the roles that she considered offensive or insignificant.
“I got native girls. I got Pacific Island parts, I got Egyptian girl parts, anything but just acting roles. They were all very specific. They all called for an accent or two that I wasn’t even familiar with,” she recalled. Because of this, Moreno didn’t make another movie for seven long years. “I showed them,” she said of that time.
Eventually, of course, her career got back on track. In 1977, she became the first Latina performer to earn EGOT status. Having been in the business for so long, Moreno has seen the industry change dramatically. There was a time, early on, when she actually had to darken her skin for film roles.
As she got older “and had more of a career,” the actress said she just “kept getting darker and darker and darker.” The makeup they would put on her was “like mud.” She explained that it was so thick and dark that her face would streak and show her real color underneath.
One time, she told a makeup artist, “I don’t know why I have to be this color. This is not my color.” The man then asked her, “What are you, racist?” Confused, she didn’t even know what to say to him. “I wanted to be a movie star,” she stated, “but I never imagined that it would be so hard and so painful. Never. Never.”
Changing her skin color was just one part of her growing pains. Another chapter in her story can’t be swept aside, and that’s the allegation she made against her Hollywood agent who allegedly raped her early in her career…
The first time she ever spoke about it was in the documentary. She had written about it in her memoir but talking about it was “heartbreaking.” She said that she ran into this man about five years ago in Palm Springs. He had booked her in a concert that was scheduled there.
She recalled seeing his face and was taken aback. What took her completely off guard and made her speechless was what the man told her at that moment: “I’m sorry I didn’t make you pregnant because that was the whole idea. Then you would be beholden to me forever.”
The only thing she could mutter was, “Excuse me,” and she left the room. Even though she wanted to call him a “son of a b***h,” she said nothing, and she’s glad because it probably would have “opened too many doors.”
Not all her experiences with men in the business were bad, though. Of the men Moreno has been with, some of them were super famous. Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley were two stars she dated, and “for a short while there, I had the two kings of show business royalty.”
The way Moreno remembers it, she only dated Elvis to make Brando jealous. Yes, Moreno was in a romantic relationship with one of the biggest (and most controversial) movie stars in Hollywood during the 1950s, and it was apparently a very toxic one.
In her memoir, she wrote about how Brando first noticed her when, at 22 years old, she appeared on the cover of Life magazine in 1954. They met for the first time on the set of his film Désirée, at which point she felt as though she “had been dropped into a very hot bath, and I went into a full-body blush.”
From the moment they met, Moreno felt like a web had been spun between them. She was extremely attracted to him. “Amazingly, he felt the same way and made no secret about it,” she wrote. On their first date, he took her to an “all-star, all-Method-actor party” where they rubbed shoulders with Paul Newman, James Dean, and Joanne Woodward.
Moreno thought she was out of her league but was “thrilled to be there, especially with him.” Despite their intense affair, Moreno’s and Brando’s romance remained relatively unknown to the public. “He was an absolute lunatic,” about keeping it hush-hush, she said in 2017.
They went out seldomly and were always going to “little obscure restaurants.” Still, their relationship carried on, on and off, for about eight years. All the while, Brando kept dating other women and even married two of them.
Moreno looks back on those “eight years of tumult” and manages to credit the actor with making her “politically conscious.” She saw him get involved in events to raise awareness about Native Americans and other causes. It was Marlon who “awakened” her to things beyond herself. But that might be one of the very few positive things she learned from their toxic affair.
To say the couple was passionate would be an understatement. She wrote that calling him a “great lover” would be “understating” what he did to her body and soul. Moreno told Wendy Williams in 2018 that she wanted to marry Brando, but he wasn’t interested.
He was more interested in his philandering, and Moreno was devastated when she found lingerie that didn’t belong to her in his home. She was heartbroken and vengeful. Then, an opportunity came knocking on her door. The actress received a call from Elvis Presley’s manager: The King of Rock’ n’ Roll wanted to meet her.
She decided to date Elvis because, Moreno stated, “I knew that no one could possibly make Marlon Brando more jealous.” Suddenly, Moreno’s dating life was in the headlines, and it didn’t include the name Marlon Brando.
Once the news of Elvis and Moreno’s date made the headlines, Brando was “furious,” even though he was indeed the one who was cheating. “That man threw chairs,” she remembered, adding with a smile, “It was wonderful.” But her affair with Elvis didn’t last. Why? Well, apparently, the King was pretty boring. She told The San Francisco Chronicle that the fling lasted three days.
After the brief fling with Elvis, she and Brando split up. The thing is, she discovered that she was pregnant with Brando’s child. It didn’t go over well with the actor, who then arranged for her abortion.
Naively, Moreno thought the news of the pregnancy would prompt him to propose to her. But it had the opposite effect. In the documentary, she said Brando asked “somebody” and that somebody found a doctor who would do it. The surgery was somewhat botched, resulting in Moreno bleeding for days. She nearly died.
While their relationship continued, so did Brando’s infidelity, and it took a severe toll on Moreno’s mental health. By the early ‘60s, they reached a boiling point when Brando developed a relationship with his co-star Tarita Teriipaia from Mutiny on the Bounty.
Moreno recalled one particular moment in which the pain she was feeling was intolerable. She was alone in his house, waiting for him to come home, and she asked herself, “How can you keep taking him back?” “He hasn’t just had one woman. He’s had legions! It will never stop!” Unfortunately, it led Moreno to try to take her own life.
Moreno attempted suicide while in Brando’s home by swallowing a bottle of pills. “I wanted to do it because I couldn’t take the pain anymore of the relationship,” she said in the documentary. “It was humiliating, and I was letting him step all over me.”
After surviving the suicide attempt, Moreno started therapy. She didn’t quit until she “exorcised this man from my life.” Her therapist told her to “never, ever, ever see Marlon again, because the next time you may not be as lucky.” Her therapist even made Brando write her a letter, too.
His letter said something along the lines of, “This is it, Rita, I’m sorry for everything, all the things I’ve done. This is a letter of goodbye. I will never see you again.” Six months later, he called her on the phone, and they became friends.
But she wasn’t necessarily expecting him to come back into her life. That said, she didn’t enjoy having to star alongside him seven years later in the film The Night of the Following Day. There was even a scene in the film where their characters fight.
In the scene, Moreno slaps him in the face, and then he smacks her back. Moreno said that scene “opened an old scar” of when he would take advantage of her; of when he had other women. In the scene, she started screaming at him, and “they never stopped filming.”
It looks like she didn’t really “exorcise” him out of her life, after all. But that scene and the intense fight that ensued proved to be a cathartic experience for the actress. It gave her closure, and she was finally able to “get even with him, in my very childish way.”
Funnily enough, Moreno still considers Brando as her “absolute favorite” scene partner. Despite their stormy relationship and breakup, the two remained friends. Moreno wrote in her memoir that during Brando’s final years, leading up to his death in 2004, he would periodically call her and whisper, “I love you.”
Brando married Teriipaia, his third wife, in 1962 and they had two children together. As for Moreno, she married Dr. Leonard Gordon in 1965 and had a daughter together named Fernanda. Gordon passed away in 2010.
Moreno revealed that she has been wearing Brando’s favorite perfume (he didn’t like men’s cologne), Balmain’s Vent Vert, for five decades now. It’s essentially her way of keeping his memory alive. Decades after their split, both Brando and Moreno’s homes showed traces of their former romance.
Brando had only one piece of movie memorabilia in his home: a photo of him with a nude Moreno from The Night of the Following Day back in 1968. In Moreno’s home, a black-and-white portrait of the Godfather star sits in a frame.
Moreno explained that her 45-year marriage to Gordon had begun with an unwritten contract between them that basically said, “I’ll be a wonderful little girl and amuse you and make you happy” if you will, in return, be my protector and take care of me.
But the day she decided to grow up was the day their marriage got into trouble, which happened in its seventh year. It was around then that they started talking about divorce. They never ended up getting a divorce because she didn’t want to break up the family, but she did admit that she was unhappy for a “very, very, very long time.”
Once Gordon passed away in 2010, even though she was well into her 70s, she “blossomed.” Moreno said that she’s someone who truly loves to laugh and be “raucous,” which was something that apparently annoyed her husband.
He called that side of her her “show business self.” And once he was gone, all of that was up for grabs. Now, she could be anyone she wanted or needed to be. And she never looked back. The grandmother of two seems to be happier now than she’s ever been. When asked if she was single, she said: “You bet your ass.”
Moreno truly is a triple threat—she can act, dance and sing—and her EGOT status is proof of that. But what is less acknowledged is how she’s been a pathbreaker. As a person of color, a mother, a grandmother, and an activist, Moreno has been revolutionary.
“She’s a kick in the pants too,” her representative, Jackie Speier, said of Moreno. Speier is a California congresswoman and has been a friend of hers for two decades. At her age, it’s not a given that she’s still being cast in movies…
West Side Story fans are surely looking forward to Steven Spielberg’s remake, which will feature Moreno. In fact, she’s also a producer of the film. Who knew this woman would stick around for as long as she has?
Back in her MGM days, when Louis B. Mayer signed her to her first contract, he called her the “Spanish Elizabeth Taylor.” Part of the reason Moreno has stuck around for so long is because she simply loves the attention, which she admitted in the documentary. Her daughter attested to it: “She really is a born performer.”
Despite all that, convincing Moreno to do the recent documentary took about a year. “I just didn’t know if I wanted to entrust anyone with my life,” Moreno admitted. She knew she needed to be completely honest and prepare herself for it.
During the year-long production, she had to remind herself that she didn’t need to charm the camera anymore. She also agreed to be filmed without makeup and without a wig, something that she was even more reluctant about.
In 2000, Moreno released an album of nightclub songs. In 2006, she played Amanda Wingfield in the revival of The Glass Menagerie. She also had a recurring role on Law & Order: Criminal Intent as Detective Robert Goren’s dying mother.
In 2007, she played the family matriarch on the brief TV series Cane. Then, in 2011, she signed on for the role of the mother of Fran Drescher’s character in the sitcom Happily Divorced. She’s had her stints in TV, but film is still her preferred medium.
She did a small voice role in 2014’s Rio 2, which might just be her most commercially successful film. That same year, she appeared in the NBC TV movie Old Soul, alongside Natasha Lyonne, Fred Willard and Ellen Burstyn (it was supposed to be a series, but it wasn’t picked up).
In 2011, she began performing a solo autobiographical in Berkeley, California, called Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup. You might have seen her in the Netflix sitcom One Day at a Time, in which Moreno plays the matriarch of a Cuban American family.
Moreno came to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s defense during a June 2021 interview on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Miranda’s film, In the Heights, has received backlash over “colorism” as the cast has barely any dark-skinned lead actors.
Moreno said, “Can’t you just wait a while and leave it alone? There’s a lot of people who are Puertorriqueños, who are also from Guatemala, who are dark and who are also fair. We are all colors in Puerto Rico.” She went on to say that people were attacking the wrong person.
She later issued an apology to The Hollywood Reporter: “I’m incredibly disappointed with myself,” she began. She stated that she “was clearly dismissive of Black lives that matter.”